The Biden Administration and New Opportunities for Tribal Co-Management: E&E News Story

Richard Sherman points out plants used in traditional Lakota medicine during a tour Friday at Badlands National Park.
Rapid City Journal Photo by Josh Morgan
Here’s an interesting story in E&E News with the headline “Tribes flex political muscle in quest to co-manage parks” .. looking more closely, it’s about all federal lands. I’ve excerpted sections about the PEER evolution in thought on this topic and the idea of the “peacemaking system.” The whole thing is worth reading, hope you all have access to E&E News. My favorite quote:

“Alternative dispute resolution, as they call it now, for us that’s not alternative,” Nez added. “That’s our original way of resolving issues in our communities. For Navajos, we call it the peacemaking system, where everybody comes in and has a seat at the table to talk things out.”

Co-management plans on federal lands could ignite thorny jurisdictional disputes among agencies. As an example, tribal projects involving forestland would have to include the Forest Service, which is part of the Department of Agriculture.

Even without such disputes, progress can come slowly, as Jarvis discovered in 2016 when the park service modified a regulation to allow tribal members to gather plants at national parks, but only for “traditional purposes.”

When he announced the change, Jarvis said it would support tribal sovereignty and the “unique cultural traditions of American Indians,” with plants used for everything from basketry to traditional medicines. To be eligible, a tribe must have “a traditional association” to certain lands within the National Park System. Any commercial uses are prohibited.

While the park service consulted with more than 120 tribes before making the change, Jarvis said NPS officials still encountered plenty of opposition from outside groups like the advocacy organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

“It took nearly 15 years to get that done, in part because of opposition by organizations such as PEER,” Jarvis said.

Yet as another sign of the changed political winds, even PEER has changed its stance on co-management.

In 2017, PEER warned that co-management with tribes could conflict with the park service’s desire to protect wildlife, protected species and forests.

At the time, Jeff Ruch, who then served as PEER’s executive director and who now heads the group’s Pacific field office, headquartered in California, said the concern was that “two sovereigns under one roof is a house divided.”

“If it is true co-management, then any disagreement could lead to utter impasse,” Ruch said.

But Tim Whitehouse, PEER’s executive director since 2019, offered a much different take on the issue, saying the organization welcomes “the Biden administration’s efforts to better engage culturally diverse communities in shaping the direction of conservation and public lands policies.”

“The co-management of parks and public lands with tribes must be part of that discussion, as well as guaranteeing tribes access to their cultural lands,” he said.

Asked to explain his organization’s change of heart, Whitehouse said it was the result of “a much-needed evolution in thinking on these issues.”

I wonder whether commercial uses by Tribes would work on BLM and FS?

As longtime friends, Nez said that he and Haaland “rely on each other’s counsel for a lot of things” and that she now will get a chance to help fix “the wrongs of the past” by advancing co-management plans. He said the idea is gaining in popularity as more Americans — tribal members and non-tribal members alike — seek to be caretakers of the land.

“Look at what’s happening in California, the over-forestation,” he said. “If you would allow people to harvest firewood, that will help in cleaning up, and that way large-scale fires don’t happen. You see, that’s the perspective that Native Americans can bring to the table.”

If allowed to hunt more on public lands, Nez said: “We’re not going to kill all the animals because we as Native Americans believe that you just take what you need at the time, for instance the winter.”

And Nez said that giving tribal members more leeway to collect roots, plants and herbs from more national park sites could also help lead to medical breakthroughs, if tribes are only given the chance.

“Maybe we even have the cure for COVID-19, who knows?” he said.

As for making all this work, Nez said there’s an easy answer: consensus.

“That’s where both sides have to agree on moving into the future,” he said.

“Alternative dispute resolution, as they call it now, for us that’s not alternative,” Nez added. “That’s our original way of resolving issues in our communities. For Navajos, we call it the peacemaking system, where everybody comes in and has a seat at the table to talk things out.”

6 thoughts on “The Biden Administration and New Opportunities for Tribal Co-Management: E&E News Story”

  1. Tribes have different ethical standards when roadbuilding and logging are concerned. For example the Kalispel Tribe of USK, WA is supporting logging virgin moist site old growth and entering an unroaded area under the guise of restoration for the Sxwuytn logging and roadbuilding EA.
    In contrast the Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Idaho, is opposing temporary road construction on the Buckskin-Saddle EA on the IPNF because of impacts to wildlife and the USFS was not sensitive to their sacred areas.
    And if a Tribe’s environmental actions are criticized, they scream racism as a tool to get capitation. I do not support returning land to the Tribes at this point in time.

    • To be fair, they are talking about co-management rather than giving the land back. I’m fine with either one, or co-management as part of a process leading to giving it back.

      You mention “ethical standards,” I say “views.” Tribes have different views about fossil fuels also, and people within Tribes don’t agree either. So how is this all going to work? How are people going to balance their views on “how the land should be managed” with “who has the most legitimate right to it?” Where do justice and ethics (both environmental and social) fit into it? It’s going to be a fascinating discussion.

      I agree, though, that racism isn’t always the best way to characterize disagreement, nor is it accurate. It doesn’t add much value and further alienates people and drives them apart.

      Unfortunately, even statespeople can get carried with political rhetoric and make that claim (or just leave the question in the air, or whatever they’re doing).

      “Rep. Haaland’s nomination is both historic and long overdue. If confirmed, she would be the first Native American Cabinet member. Her record is in line with mainstream conservation priorities. Thus, the exceptional criticism of Rep. Haaland and the threatened holds on her nomination must be motivated by something other than her record.”

      Mark and Tom Udall

      If you don’t know what someone’s motives are, why would you ascribe the worst? Does it help anything?

  2. A recent co-management example is the long-unresolved debate over co-management of the USFWS Bison Range in northwest MT by the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribe. Over decades, the CSKT sought co-management of the refuge, which used to be part of their reservation, but it was opposed by USFWS and PEER, among others. In 2004, as Interior ASLM, I worked with another political appointee at USFWS to approve co-management of the Bison Range in 2004. That fell apart after 2 years, due to the continued concerns of USFWS. But in the 2020 Omnibus Budget, Congress directed the transfer of the Bison Range to the CSKT Reservation. On January 15, 2021, then Secretary Bernhardt signed the order of transfer. Co-management of the Bears Ears Monument in UT is another example. The 30×30 land conservation initiative has tribal co-management as one of its precepts. Native Americans have made clear that co-management of certain federal lands is something they want the Biden administration to deliver. Expect to see more co-management efforts.

  3. Move the US Forest Service into the Department of the Interior, dissolve the Black Hills National Forest and make it a national monument co-managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the tribal nations signatory to the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. Mato Paha (Bear Butte), the associated national grasslands and the Sioux Ranger District of the Custer/Gallatin National Forest should be included in the move.

    Rewild it and rename it Paha Sapa National Monument eventually becoming part of the Greater Missouri Basin National Wildlife Refuge connecting the CM Russell Wildlife Refuge in Montana along the Missouri River to Oacoma, South Dakota combined with corridors from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon in the north and south to the Pecos River through Nebraska, eastern Colorado, western Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

  4. I remember from around 1990 when I was working in R6 with the Fremont National Forest, and the term “co-management” (with the Klamath Tribe) being said by Forest Service people with kind of a sneer. It reminded me of the way foresters had looked at ologists a couple of decades earlier. A threat to their professional judgment and their authority. It looks like things have progressed since then though, based on this abstract:

    “Through a Master Stewardship Agreement with the Forest Service, the Klamath Tribes now share implementation responsibilities, including prescription writing, sale layout, tree marking, and forest inventory.

    Management and Policy Implications Indian tribes across the United States have knowledge and experience managing forests for multiple benefits …”

    Still, I would make a general distinction between personal/tribal traditional uses (which I think are less of an issue on national forests than national parks) and commercial management of federal lands, regarding the degree of tribal “co.” The history of “certain lands” could also justify more of a tribal role.


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